Polyphasic Sleep: Is 8 Hours Unnatural? Sleep Less and Do More!

Image by Time Magazine

By Josh Rueff on June 21, 2013

Have you ever wondered what life would be like without sleep?

I often imagine having such an advantage; living life with the potential output of two people – without the Fight Club schizophrenia.

So much could be accomplished, not just in the realm of work, but in knowledge, creativity, innovation – you could learn to paint like Rembrandt, invent like Leonardo da Vinci, compose your own musical masterpiece, write books and plays, and learn virtually anything – all with time to spare!

But that’s just my escape from reality. My piping daydreams.

Or is it?

Historic Documentation of Polyphasic Sleep

Okay, it kind of is just a dream – humans haven’t yet found a way to beat sleep completely. And yet the dream of living with no sleep isn’t as far from reality as you might think!

Enter the art of polyphasic sleep.

Polyphasic sleep is a schedule where you take a series of scheduled power naps throughout the day ranging from 15 to 30 minutes each. Some polyphasic sleep schedules allow for a core sleep block of 1 1/2 hours to 5 1/2 hours, followed by a series of power naps.

One of the most important qualifiers for people interested in adding up to 42 hours to their week, is the history of sleep.

For the sake of simplicity (that is what we’re about after all!), I’ll be brief. Polyphasic sleep is actually quite natural for humans  – I’ll let BBC give that report:

BBC Journalist Stephanie Hegarty writes:
BBC reports that a growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that eight-hours of uninterrupted sleep may be unnatural as a wealth of historical evidence reveals that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks called first and second sleep. A book by historian Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern — in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria. ‘It’s not just the number of references — it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,’ says Ekirch.
References to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century with improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses — which were sometimes open all night. Today most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep which could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. ‘Our pattern of consolidated sleep has been a relatively recent development, another product of the industrial age, while segmented sleep was long the natural form of our slumber, having a provenance as old as humankind,’ says Ekrich, adding that we may ‘choose to emulate our ancestors, for whom the dead of night, rather than being a source of dread, often afforded a welcome refuge from the regimen of daily life.

In a previous post I wrote about how many monumental figures of the past opted for less sleep in the pursuit of their passions:

1. As legend has it (and it may not be much more than that) Leonardo da Vinci slept only 2-3 hours per night, which is almost absurdly believable when you take into account the vast number of inventions, paintings, theories, and contributions to science the man is credited for.

2. Benjamin Franklin is another supposed proponent of the habit of polyphasic sleep, which may be a myth derived from his autobiography where he advises a sleep schedule of no more than 5 hours a night, and his habit of taking naps during the day. Not much, but also not polyphasic.

3. Tesla claimed to only sleep 2 hours a night, leading many to believe he was a polyphasic sleeper as well, since this is the only way a person can survive off of that little sleep. The fact that he admitted to napping occasionally to “recharge” gives further credit to the theory.

4. Thomas Edison called sleep “a heritage from our cave days.” He only slept 3 to 4 hours a night and was proud of it. Fortunately (for history’s sake) he didn’t hide the fact that he was a polyphasic sleeper, keeping a cot in his office for his scheduled power naps.

His thoughts on sleep:

“People will not only do what they like to do — they overdo it 100 per cent. Most people overeat 100 per cent, and oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient. The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake — they have only different degrees of doze through the twenty-four hours. … For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It’s real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities. Just to satisfy my curiosity I have gone through files of the British Medical Journal and could not find a single case reported of anybody being hurt by loss of sleep. Insomnia is different entirely — but some people think they have insomnia if they can sleep only ten hours every night.”

Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Martin write about his sleep eccentricity in their biography Edison, His Life and Inventions:

“As one is about to pass out of the library attention is arrested by an incongruity in the form of a cot, which stands in an alcove near the door. Here Edison, throwing himself down, sometimes seeks a short rest during specially long working hours. Sleep is practically instantaneous and profound, and he awakes in immediate and full possession of his faculties, arising from the cot and going directly “back to the job” without a moment’s hesitation…”

Polyphasic Sleep in Nature

Another thing I covered was the presence of polyphasic sleep in nature:

1. Giraffes: 2 hours per 24 hour day, fragmented.

2. Deer: 3 hours, fragmented.

3. Elephants: 4 hours, fragmented.

4. Ants: 4 hours spread out evenly over a 24 hour period – ants take over 200 power naps per day of roughly a minute each.

The overall goal of polyphasic sleep is to gain more time, which is valid enough, and though the practice seems to go against nature, it turns out that most animals are actually polyphasic sleepers. So it happens to be that humans, with our luxurious (gluttonous?) 7 to 10 hours of monophasic sleep, happen to be the weird ones.

My Polyphasic Experience

First I’ll say that there’s a wealth of writers with much more experience than I have, many of them giving great details and tips on how to do it right, and with years of polyphasic sleeping experience under their belts, I’d advise gleaning from the more sophisticated anecdotal accounts. (I’ll add their links at the bottom of this article.)

But I still want to record my experience as I go along, and eventually I may gain as much experience as the polyphasic thought leaders that I’ve learned from!

My experience with the Everyman 3-Nap Schedule (so far) is as follows:

Day 1 – 6: My limited understanding of the sleep cycle is that the most important stages are REM sleep and Delta sleep. The first 3 days were characterized by a severe lack in both, which was expected (and is quite necessary actually). I was tired much of the day after 3 pm or so, and especially after 7 pm.

I worked out every day like I always do, and my muscles started getting sorer than normal. This is because my body had not yet adapted to incorporate Delta sleep into my power naps or core sleep – at least not enough of it. About 50% of the body’s growth hormone release occurs during this phase, so I simply wasn’t getting enough “muscle juice”, and the result was a sore body (and a little extra fat gain I’m pretty sure).

Thankfully, by day 6 (it typically takes between a week and 2 weeks I think for most Everyman 3-Nappers) my body had clearly adjusted to immediate REM sleep during my naps – sometimes I watched my dreams forming before my eyes the second my head hit the pillow. This is a nice feeling by the way, I can’t really explain why. Most of my soreness was gone too, and I’d often wake up out of a very deep sleep, leading me to believe that I’d almost completely adjusted to the incorporation Delta sleep as well.

Day 7 – 14: My body would probably be 100% adjusted if it wasn’t for the camping trip I went on over the weekend (which was completely worth it; canoeing, rope swinging into the river, bridge jumping, lazy log floating, and swimming with great friends usually is), but I felt like I lost a tiny bit of progress because I only slept about 3 hours each night with a lot of skipped naps. Surprisingly though, by the end of week 2 I’d say I’m at least 90% adjusted, and I feel great through the entire day, only starting to crash around 9-ish. If I get my naps in according to schedule I don’t even feel tired then, but I’ve been less rigid than I probably should be, especially with my final power nap.

I’m looking forward to documenting future polyphasic sleep throughout the year.  Some of my favorite bloggers ( like the ambitious Eric at GreenMinimalism: here’s his polyphasic experience) have reported bad experiences, and others (like the illustrious king of hard-earned leisure, Mr. Simple) have a hard time working their schedules around polyphasic sleeping.

I’m hoping that my experience can help promote the flexibility, health, and overall legitimacy of the discipline. That being said, if my health begins to fail because of polyphasic sleep, it’s going to go away – sleep deprivation isn’t what I’m interested in.

To me it’s a test of what history says is natural, and what many exemplary people have promoted. (I forgot to mention the genius polymath Bucky Fuller, one of the most well-documented cases of life long polyphasic sleep… Oh well, maybe I’ll bring him up later on…)

If this works, I’ll be one happy camper (inside pun woo!), and it’s all in the name of science, productivity, and glorious napping.

Oh, and as promised, here’s a few links to better polyphasic sleepers than me:

1. Puredoxyk: This woman is something of a genius and certainly a polyphasic champ – tons of great experience and tips on her site, Transcendental Logic.

2. Steve Pavlina: Awesome blog and great documentation; well worth checking out if you’re interested in polyphasic sleeping.

3. High Existence: This site is an all around good time, but there’s some really good advice on polyphasic sleeping too.

4. Dustin Curtis: Probably the best place to start learning the fine art of losing sleep – perfect visuals covering all of the most important polyphasic sleeping schedules.

Of course there’s many others that I haven’t gotten around to checking out – if you have experience on the subject, do share – every bit of knowledge helps!